WASHINGTON -- The Senate yesterday gave the $11 billion Superconducting Super Collider its most critical vote of confidence yet, rejecting by 57 to 42 an amendment that would have killed funding for the Texas nuclear physics research project in the fiscal year that beings today.

Senate sponsors said the vote -- tabling an amendment like the one approved overwhelmingly in the House in June to cut all but $220 million of close-out funding -- was the turning point in the fight to save the collider this year.

They predicted that a House-Senate conference committee meeting on the energy appropriations bill in the next few weeks would uphold the Senate's position and provide President Clinton's full request of $640 million for the collider.

"I'm never one to say we've got it in the bag, but I'm highly optimistic" that the conference committee will restore the funding that the House struck from the bill by a vote of 280 to 130, said Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La.

"We may have some more fights, but I hope it will be smooth sailing from now on," he said. Johnston is not only the collider's chief defender in the Senate but, as chairman of the Senate Appropriation Committee's energy and water development subcommittee, is the likely co-chairman of the conference committee.

Indirectly linked to the collider funding are $250 million of lease revenue bonds issued by Texas in December 1991 to help finance its $1 billion share the project. The state has also issued $250 million of general obligation bonds which are not tide to the federal funding.

Johnston said he was, "pleased by the strong margin" of the Senate vote. He said he had, "three, probably four votes in reserve" from senators who told him they would have voted with him if their votes had been needed to defeat the funding cut amendment sponsored by Sen. Dale Bumpers. D-Ark.

Before the vote, Bumpers also predicted that if the Senate failed to kill the collider funding, full funding would be restored in conference with the House.

A House aide to Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., a prominent House opponent of the collider, agreed that the conference committee is likely to approve collider funding despite strenuous efforts by opponents to ensure that House conferences stand fast on the House position.

House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., has promised to include one strong opponent of the collider on the conference committee, but the rest of the House conferees, who sit on the House Appropriations Committee, are believed to support the collider, the House aide said.

The aide nevertheless predicted that there would be another big fight over the collider when the conference report goes to the House floor, probably not long before the Oct. 21 deadline for completing action on fiscal 1994 appropriation bills.

"I'd be very surprised if the opponents of the project don't fight it in the full House. If they mobilize people and wake them up to this thing, they can beat the conference report on the floor and send it back to conference," he said.

The House aide noted that the fervor for spending cuts spawned by the debate over the $500 billion budget package will be heating up again later in October as the House and Senate gear up to vote on a constitutional balanced budget amendment and other measures to further cut deficit spending.

"Spending cut fever" played an important role in the House's anti-collider vote in June just as the lull in the budget debate now prevailing in Congress gave collider proponents a window of opportunity to pass the funding bill, the House aide said.

"There's almost a palpable change from a month ago. It's funny how that ebbs and flows," the aide said.

Johnston said he too has noted the "emotional ebbs and flows" in the collider debate, but he nevertheless believes the Senate's vote was decisive in concluding that the project has scientific merit, and should be saved despite the calls for budget cuts.

Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Texas' recently elected Republican senator and former state Treasurer, said the Senate vote" shows that America has made a commitment and we're going to keep it."

But Bumpers rued the lost opportunity to cut what he called a bloated, pork-barrel project. "When are we going to stop the rhetoric and start to cut spending," he asked.

Texas Gov. Anne Richards, who called dozens of senators in recent weeks to lobby for the project, said that the Senate vote, if upheld by the House, will save the jobs of 2,100 collider workers as well as another 7,000 workers elsewhere in Texas whose jobs depend on continuation of the project.

"The Senate has shown support for a critical scientific research and technology project that translates into thousands of good, high-paying jobs, not just for Texas, but for the nation," Richards said in a statement.

Dallas Bureau Chief Janin Friend contributed to this story.

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